By Robert Meyer
For many years I’ve done a periodical editorial spot for a local radio station. Once last year, my theme was the idea that the semi-anonymity accorded by posting forums, led to the phenomenon of trolling and obnoxious posters. Somewhat surprisingly, the producer of the segment was even more adamant about that thesis than I was.
Undoubtedly, posting forums, chat rooms and sites such as Facebook, probably were created with the idea that these new electronic forums would be a medium to facilitate greater communication and foster understanding among various people. While they may have done that at times, it seems that to a greater degree they have actually highlighted and amplified the differences and polarization within the population, which might otherwise have gone less noticed.
While people may need to identify themselves in some minimal way, the anonymity of hiding behind a keyboard has emboldened people to “say what they really think” Opining from behind the keyboard veil seems to bring out the lesser angels of human nature in a way that would not be so prevalent in face-to-face interaction.
A local newspaper forum provides the perfect microcosmic anecdote for this trend. People may comment freely on news articles or editorial pieces. Aside from a few infrequent commentators sharing rare opinions, you generally get an exchange of verbal barbs and jousting from the “usual suspects.’ Those usual suspects are regular posters from opposite ends of the political spectrum, who make predictable responses to news reports and Letters To The Editor or staff editorials. The typical conversation never evolves beyond one saying to the other something like “You liberal idiot, I see you took your overdose of stupid pills this morning.” Then the other responds “If you’re going to use the term ‘stupid,’ look in the mirror and see the face that ought to appear next to that word in the dictionary.”
While I don’t wish to be part of an exchange of that mentality, I have no choice but to admit that I have been goaded into this sort of dialogue, only to wake up the next day regretting some irreverent comment I made the day before. I recognize that one freely chooses either to be part of the problem or part of the solution. My solution is to hereafter refrain from conversations that stoop to this level of dialogue. As the saying goes “When you wrestle with a pig in the mud, you both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
In claiming that people on the internet act in ways they wouldn’t dare behave face-to-face, I offer the following humorous story. In the course of my career I occasionally deal with an elderly man who was quiet pleasant and courteous in our limited face-to-face conversations. The same man got upset about an opinion piece I had published in a local newspaper and wrote a scathing response that was never published due to its length. However a mutual acquaintance forwarded it to me after the elderly gentleman had previously forwarded the piece to him for review. The upshot here is that the acquaintance did not know I knew the elderly gentleman, and the elderly man was not aware that it was me who wrote the piece. Knowing that “loose lips sink ships,” I never revealed those details to either person, and neither discovered the connection. It’s hard not to laugh though, when the elderly gentleman waves and smiles at me while riding by on his bicycle. It infers that perhaps people aren’t really as boorish in person as they are on the internet. The real tragedy is the juxtaposition of the Jekyll and Hyde personas.
Most people who recognize and greet me in public tend to agree with my perspective. However, recently a met a fellow who shook my hand and said, “I disagree with almost everything you write about, but I enjoy your writing style.” It’s hard to be too upset about criticism on that level.
I am, and have long been, politically speaking, an unapologetic conservative. I am also a Christian with a biblical worldview rather than a humanist. Over the years, those stances have prompted a host of angry and obnoxious responses to my opinions, and fortunately, a few positive and encouraging ones as well. There is clearly a difference between having a passionate disagreement, and doing whatever it takes to convince your opponents that you are a despicable human being. I don’t want to be part of the problem, and I encourage others to do the same. If not, there is little hope of diffusing this albatross of rampant incivility.
© Robert Meyer